CORNELIUS – Photos projected onto a screen show groups of happy Sunday School students and large choirs from a time gone by. The images were a trip down memory lane for some in the audience of a recent Black History Month celebration as they recognized family members, friends and themselves.
“Call yourselves out,” Smithville CommUNITY Coalition Co-Chair Ron Potts said with a grin while pointing to a picture during the standing-room-only event Feb. 23 at Cornelius Town Hall.
Among the topics of this year’s Cornelius Black History Month celebration was the rich history of Torrence Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which celebrates its 150th year in 2019.
The Rev. Ellison Bowman, who has led Torrence Chapel since 2016, said the 284 church members have continued to hold fast to their traditions while incorporating elements that are relevant today.
“I feel blessed to be here to be part of this,” Bowman said.
While not all of the anniversary activities have been finalized for this fall, Bowman said he wants the whole community to be part of the celebration.
Torrence Chapel AME Zion Church was started after the Civil War by newly released slaves under the direction of the Rev. Ephrim Torrence.
“It started with an arbor area in Smithville,” Potts said of the church whose original members were mostly farmers, sharecroppers and domestic workers. “In 1869, the first wooden structure was built on property given to us by white friends. The Glaspies gave us the property, and we’ve been there ever since.”
For decades the arbor served as a place for revivals and was upgraded with a concrete floor, but it hasn’t been used lately.
“People no longer like to go outside,” Potts quipped. “We’ll see if that will change in the future.”
The first deed was filed in November 1902 with a new frame structure built a few years later. In 1928, it was replaced by a brick building with double entries that were common for churches of the day. In 1970, Torrence Chapel was remodeled, and the double entries were cut to one. A steeple was added in 1975.
Other notable facility changes were the additions of the educational building and fellowship hall in 1950, and their subsequent renovations in 1989. But many audience members agreed on the importance of the addition of indoor bathrooms in 1955.
“I remember when the men’s and women’s bathrooms were out in the middle of the cemetery,” Potts said to laughter and nods. “That was a blessing to get them on the inside.”
In addition to property changes, Torrence Chapel AME Zion also spun off new churches, including Reeves Temple in Davidson in 1910 and Union Bethel, which was started in Smithville by Torrence Chapel members in 1917.
Celebrating in song
One thing that has been prevalent for much of the church’s history is music.
The first choir started in 1885 under the leadership of Monroe Johnson, Potts said. Singers had handwritten sheet music that had marks and notes on them. People were taught the tunes, and the songs were passed down.
The Stroller Singers, started in 1945 as a men-only group, was the church’s first gospel choir.
What is now the church’s men’s choir began in 1992 and has some of the original members, including Wilson Stinson, Calvin Ramseur and Tollis Johnson.
The children’s choir was started in 1949 as the Junior Travelers but has been known as the Young People’s Ensemble and the Original Messengers. Today it is called Chenaniah, meaning “God has established.”
Other Torrence Chapel choirs include the Mass Choir, the Messengers and the Torrence Chapel Gospel Choir.
Keeping history alive
The Smithville CommUNITY Coalition has partnered with the town for nearly a decade to hold a Black History Month celebration to introduce north Mecklenburg and Cornelius residents to the history and people of Smithville, Potts said. Co-chair Lisa Mayhew added that the historically black part of town commonly gets lost in the shuffle, and with the changes happening to downtown, it’s even more important to keep history alive.